Who Is Amsterdam’s Graffiti Enigma Laser 3.14? Part Two: Interview

Laser 3.14. Photo: Lisa Elsenburg

Laser 3.14. Photo: Lisa Elsenburg

Laser 3.14′s tags and cryptic mini poems can be seen all over Amsterdam, but who is he? After last week’s introductory Part One, it’s now time for Part Two. Online arts magazine CFYE caught up with the graffiti enigma in his studio, and had a great chat about his art, his inspirations, ambitions, politics, local problems, global problems and the future.

The mysterious Laser 3.14 is best known for his poetic graffiti texts that can be found all around Amsterdam. ‘Fasten your seatbelts, we’re going nowhere’ and ‘Orwell dreamed up 1984, we did the rest’ are some of Laser 3.14′s lines that can be read on wooden boards, construction trailers and other less permanent materials on the streets of Amsterdam. In 2009 the artist released his well-received book Are You Reading Me, a collection of pictures of his work around town. This makes it not just a celebration of his own work, but a celebration of Amsterdam as well.

You’ve told me you haven’t had time to hit the streets for a while now. Do you feel an urge to get out?

You know what? I just keep on thinking of new sentences to write. After a while I’ve got such an amount of sentences that I just have to get up. It’s not that it’s a feeling I even want to suppress; I just like to get out and rock the streets.

When you have a stack of sentences, do you feel like your first ones are already old? Do your sentences ever get old?

Sometimes that happens pretty fast. But the flipside is that when I’m searching my old texts for inspiration for a canvas or such, I come across old sentences I thought weren’t so good back then but I appreciate now. I think that every artist knows that feeling. Sometimes you just need a period to detach yourself from your work.

People are always looking for the definition of your sentences. Do you actually want to say something with them or do you leave most up to interpretation?

I think it’s a shame when an artist over-explains his or her own interpretation; this takes away the interpretation of the public. Though I must say this is not always the case, sometimes it’s good to say something explicitly.

I think it’s a shame when an artist over-explains his or her own interpretation, though sometimes it’s good to say something explicitly.

The things I write are often just wondering thoughts or emotions I have. But they’re also ideas and opinions on things I see around me, be it religion, society or politics. These are all subjects that interest me and I use in my sentences. In one sentence it’s more poetic and cryptic, the other sentence is very explicit. I like to play with these thoughts, though I do make an effort to write things as they come out of me. When I’ve got an idea, an image, when something bothers me or I get inspired by a book, there’s always something happening. This is what I try to write down as pure as possible, which can make the meaning of the sentence a bit more unclear to the public. It’s clear for me though, as it comes from my head.

Are you bothered by misinterpretations of your work?

There are times that the explanation given to me by someone else is more interesting than my own! I like the fact that someone else’s interpretation can give my own work a new spin for myself. Art is interpretable in a 1001 ways and that’s what makes it fascinating. Art remains your own interpretation. Take poetry; sometimes it’s very clear what it’s all about, and sometimes I’m totally lost. Often there are sentences that speak to me, that apply to me. I listen/watch a lot of online debates from Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. Especially Hitchens has said a lot of things that speak to me. It makes me appreciate what words can do. You might not have memorized the entire transcript, but you remember key parts that do something with you. I can only hope my work does that as well. I like to think so, as words just do that to people, just like there will be people that have a total aversion of my words. It’s all the same!

How does science influence your work?

I’m not a scientist, but I’m very interested in it. Science influences everything and everyone. I grew up in a religious environment, but when I heard all the biblical stories and dogma’s, they couldn’t grab me as much as a scientific discovery could. Watching documentaries about the universe as a child was something that interested me a lot more. Science fascinates me and every new discovery influences me. But it’s not just science, it’s such a broad spectrum and all the segments move me. A lot of people say I’m really ‘anti’, but I’m not ‘anti’ just to be against something. I say things because a) they interest me a lot, and b) I want to make a clear point.

One of the other segments in that spectrum must be science fiction, am I right?

It’s a big influence indeed. Just to go on a sidetrack for a minute, I think that there’s a lack of quality science fiction movies nowadays. What I like about science fiction is that your fantasy is the only limit. Contemporary sci-fi, alternative universes, cold future images or a dystopia, you can go every way. I also like that there’s a lot of science involved in good science fiction. I think that current sci-fi movies are often just action movies with a sci-fi flavour.

Are there specific movies that blew your mind?

There are a lot of them, but I always come back to Blade Runner. That film is sublime. It’s not just a great sci-fi classic, it’s also a great film on its own. Soylent Green I also enjoyed a lot, it’s a classic by Richard Fleischer from ’71. Demon Seed was with Julie Christie was a movie I saw as a child. It’s about an AI program that breaks free and takes a woman hostage in her automated home with the goal to impregnate her. It sounds so bizarre, but as soon as you start watching it seems so plausible!

How does science fiction influence your work?

Especially in my early days I used a lot of sci-fi references like ‘dystopia’. The science fiction element went a bit to the background and nowadays I write a lot on the period we’re living in. It’s turbulent in politics, in Europe, in the entire world… Because there’s so much going on there’s a lot of it that comes into me, so that’s what comes out as well.

Laser 3.14 - Your Utopia My Dystopia

Laser 3.14: Your Utopia / My Dystopia

Are you frustrated by current affairs about religion for example?

It does frustrate me. SIRE [the Dutch idealistic advertising foundation] just published another commercial about tolerance and it tires me so much. It blunts the whole discussion about religion, because you have to be tolerant and are not allowed to have any criticism on religion. In my opinion, you don’t have to be tolerant at all. Better yet, you should be totally intolerant against intolerance. If you see an act of intolerance, you should do something about it.

Religion has too much freedom. The modern world we’ve had the privilege to live in the past decades shouldn’t succumb to it.

Religion has too much freedom. The modern world we have had the privilege to live in the past decades shouldn’t succumb to religion. Still that’s what’s happening and there’s a lot of skimping on the freedom of speech. There’s skimping on the equality of men and women and a whole lot of things, all in favour of religion. Religion should be personal and should not bother anyone else. When religion starts to predominate in a society where people should be free to think what they want… when that is sabotaged by religion we should make it discussable and do something about it. We should find a way out and if there’s not, it’s religion that should succumb.

Do we lack people like Theo van Gogh [Dutch film maker who was killed in 2004]?

We’re missing Van Gogh’s, Fortuyn’s, Hitchens’s. The Einsteins, The Voltaires, The Spinozas, The Socrates’s, The Nietzsche’s… We have a lack of visionaries. People with guts! A lot of people turned way too passive, which allows certain powers to disrupt society. These are religious powers, salon-idealistic powers, politically-correct fascism, you name it. There’s a whole group of people that actually hate the freedom of speech, who just hate freedom and would gladly silence a lot of people.

Are you positive about the future?

I think the human race has the power to get out of everything. When you look at the history of our race we’ve had a lot of setbacks, but we always managed to climb out. I do think things are going to get worse before they get better, but we’ll get out of it eventually. It’ll take courage and a lot of work. As long as people remain passive and let the world be run by incompetent politicians nothing will happen, but I believe we will reach a breakpoint of our tolerance. At least I hope, and I hope that’ll be the beginning of something better. I truly believe we deserve better, that The Earth deserves better and yet on the other hand I’m fully aware that 99% of all life that ever came into existence has perished over the course of Earth’s history and sooner or later we’ll be joining those ranks. This shows how fragile life is and that it takes effort to survive. Effort, that now seems severely lacking.

What I’d like to add is that the last two decades it seemed that everything needed to be changed. Everything needed to be renewed for the sake of change while there was a functioning society. I think we shouldn’t be afraid to look back to the things that have worked in our favour.

Haven’t we been living in an impossible situation forever, if you look at the difference between poor and rich?

It’s been like that forever, you always have an elite and that doesn’t need to be a bad thing as long as it isn’t as extreme and unhealthy as it is now. When I grew up there was an elite, but the layers around it had it alright as well. It seemed like a healthy situation, but now this top layer has been like parasites. At the other end the lower layers have been too passive and too individualistic as well.

How much influence do you think the media has on our feelings of dissatisfaction? When you look at the reporting on the Arabic world it has a big ‘us-them’ grade.

The urge for sensation seems to cause a spiralling negative tone. The bigger, more violent the headlines are, the better.

The media does have its influence. Not just Western media, also the media in the Middle-East. But here it’s like a tsunami of negative and extremely manipulative reporting. The urge for sensation seems to cause a spiralling negative tone. The bigger, more violent the headlines are, the better. When you keep on confronting people with that kind of reporting it’s going to have its negative influence. It’s called ‘desensitisation and it’s extremely dangerous. If the media could actually take a step back and think about their actions, they could have a more positive influence on society.

About the ‘us-them’ thing: Isn’t that the problem which arises when a religion makes a strict distinction between believers (good) and non-believers (bad, logs for hell)? I mean, that doesn’t seem like a good base for unification to me.

Do you hope you make people think about subjects like this with your work?

I think people should concern themselves with these topics anyway. My goal is not to make people think with my work, I don’t want to put myself on that throne. I do hope my art touches people, otherwise I wouldn’t hit the streets. I don’t care if it touches them negatively or positively, as long as it evokes a reaction. People doing something with your work is the bottom-line of what you want as an artist. When you do an exhibition in a gallery, it’s the same. They don’t have to be in ecstasy right away, but it’s nice if there’s a bit of a discussion. It’s an honour as well, to have your art touch something in people.

It has been quite a while ago since you started out with graffiti. Do you still create a piece every once in a while?

I haven’t done a piece in ages. I still like to though…

You made a choice between traditional graffiti and your current direction, which obviously won. How come?

I’ve been doing graffiti since my teenage years and I’ve made so many pieces that that chapter of my life started to close. When I discovered this direction it gave me a new perspective I could focus on. I don’t have to prove myself with pieces anymore. I used to have that feeling, but I’m over that nowadays. That part of graffiti is just something that was a bit over for me personally, as an artist. The fact remains that doing a piece still makes me very happy! But I like what I do now more at the moment, and I think it should be out on the streets.

Amsterdam changed a lot the last decades, and I hear you don’t think that’s a good thing.

Amsterdam was known as a liberal society where a lot was possible and accepted. The last couple of years everything has become much more restricted. A lot of the freedoms we earned are destroyed by higher hand. Destroyed by people who hate the freedom they grew up in and the sooner this city purges and rids itself of the likes of them the better. We used to have a great clubbing scene but that’s all gone now with nothing new to take its place. We used to have a lot of squats and creative initiatives and they all got closed down for expensive apartments to make this city “safer” according to certain people. Now the red light district and coffeeshops are threatened. These are all freedoms Dutch ancestors fought for and now they’re being destroyed. That hurts me. I find it extremely disrespectful towards the ones who fought to achieve these freedoms and disrespectful to the great history of this city.

Everything is restricted by rules nowadays. If you have a spontaneous creative idea you’ll get stuck in so much bureaucracy you’ll have no creative juices left on one-third of the process. This results in a social and creative decline in this city, which could be harmful for the city. We’ve been overtaken by a lot of other cities like rival city Rotterdam. Every artist that they chased away over here was received with open arms in Rotterdam.

If we want a better country, a better life, a better society we need to have, demand and fight for a system that works for the people, not against the people.

I think politics are a large chunk of the problems we have today. They know perfectly how to take good care of themselves, but show total contempt to civilians. They want to sit on responsible positions, but when they have to take responsibility they flatly refuse to take responsibility and to wiggle themselves out of it by lying and scheming. They stand in the way of progress, new progressive and constructive ideas, social and political renewal etc., because true political renewal would mean that they could be replaced and lose their political power and status. That is why, around election time, they promise and promise and afterwards refuse to deliver. But if we want a better country, a better life, a better society we need to have, demand and fight for a system that works for the people, not against the people.

'Keep it vague, get their votes, ignore them later.' - Laser 3.14

Laser 3.14: Keep It Vague / Get Their Votes / Ignore Them Later

I try to do more than complain. Of course I complain, I’m an ‘Amsterdammer’, but by the act of my work I also try to show that you can do something. You can go out with a spray-can and do something without caring about any rules. That doesn’t have to be a spray-can of course, you should be able to do that in any way you want. If there’s something I try to convey, it’s that you can take your destiny into your own hands. People have left too much in the hands of incompetent office holders, law makers and politicians.

So, ready to hit the streets again soon? What can we expect from you in the future?

It’s actually nice and quiet at the moment. I did the W+K exhibition this year, I just did a screen print for the 2 year anniversary of gallery Unit-44 in Newcastle, am I’m participating in a show for the Realisme art fair 2013, I did a new laser cut powder coated shield titled ‘It Feels Perfect To Be Imperfect’ and I just released a new print titled ‘Baby It’s Happening Now’, but to be honest, I’m trying to keep things a bit on the low. Now I try and focus on my own work, knowing that I can do an exhibition as soon as something crosses my path. I also enjoy a bit of ‘rest’ right now. The past seven years I’ve been doing one thing after another. I’m happy I can breathe and do my own thing for the moment. I always do my own thing, but now I can actually focus on producing work for myself instead of also having to focus on all the other stuff. I still want and dream about doing a show outside of Holland, like America, London, etc. So we’ll see what happens.

This interview was first published on online arts magazine CFYE on 3 January 2013. CFYE co-founder Arden de Raaij is a front-end web developer, art and culture lover and amateur photographer, fascinated by sub- and DIY-cultures.

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